On Ruth 1:6-14
By Gemechis Desta Buba
The book of Ruth
tells the story of a Moabite woman who marries into an Israelite family
fleeing from a famine in Judah. Subsequently becoming a widow, she
returns with her widowed mother-in-low to Bethlehem and while gleaning
in the fields at harvest time meets and eventually marries a wealthy
relative, later giving birth to king David’s grand father. Various
passages in the book of Ruth were used for didactic and homiletic
purposes, a major interest in this area being the derivation of rules
for proselytes. Especially in the Targum, where Ruth’s declaration of
fidelity to Naomi (Ruth 1:16-17) is expended into a Catechism, in each
phrase of which Ruth indicates her acknowledgment and acceptance of
some consequence of her conversion. According to Dictionary of Biblical
Interpretation, John H. Hayes General Ed. state, “Perhaps this accounts
for the custom of reading the book at the festival of Shavout was first
recorded in the post-Talmudic tractate Sopherim. Or perhaps the
development of Ruth as a model proselyte may have occurred in parallel
with the development of Shavout from the harvest festival to a
commemoration of the giving of the love."1
A. DATE AND AUTHOR;
Critics widely diverge on the
date of the book of Ruth. Phyllis Trible states that, “Earlier scholars
posited an exilic or post-exilic time based on alleged Aramaisms, the
remoteness of customs (cf.4: 7), discrepancies with the deutronomic
law, and the theme of universalism over against nationalism. With
modified criteria, some contemporary scholars retain this dating. Many
others however, argue for pre-exilic composition between the 10th and
7th centuries B.C. E. They detect linguistic features, classical prose,
legal and theological perspectives that fit these earliest periods. …
Still other critics such as Sasson, find the date altogether elusive.”2
Several scholars have tried to date it on the basis of language, style,
environment, theology, and legal usage. According to Kirsten Nielsen, “
The arguments have proved to be untenable. Attempts to prove a later
date, based on certain Aramaism or an archaic style or current legal
usage, have slowly crumbled, and recent research generally agrees on a
pre-exilic date.”3. Though the Jewish tradition assigned Ruth to the
prophet Samuel, scholarship has remained properly silent on the
subject. Trible clearly states that, “The author is unknown.”4
Nevertheless commentators have assumed a male gender for the
storyteller. The dominance of women characters and point of view
suggest a female presence in shaping the narratives.
B. Theme and purpose; Opinions about the purpose of Ruth are as diverse
and contradictory as those about its date. Such diversity naturally
results from such a subtle and complex literary creation as the book of
Ruth, which has many possible levels of meaning. The discourse
structure emphatically makes it clear that the problem of the story is
the death and emptiness that have afflicted the life of Naomi.
According to Frederic W. Bush, “The discourse structure further
conclusively demonstrates that the question of an heir for the line of
Elimelech is but a secondary concern to the story, given that it
surfaces only in 4:5-6 as part of Boaz’s scheme to induce the closer
relative to cede to him his prior right to redeem the field of
Elimelech and marry Ruth.”5
The theme of the book of Ruth can be stated as: 1) The living loyalty,
faithfulness, and obedience of Ruth, expressed in her commitment to her
mother-in-low, which bypassed the claims of religion and national
origin; 2) The kindness and graciousness of Boaz expressed in his
faithfulness to family responsibilities, in regard both to marrying
Ruth and to redeeming the field of Elimelech on behalf of Naomi; all of
which transcended the claims of self-interest; 3) The loving concern of
Naomi for the welfare of her daughter-in-law, expressed in her risky
scheme to induce Boaz to marry Ruth; and 4) Yahweh’s gracious provision
of fruit fullness for field and womb, reversing the death and emptiness
that had afflicted Naomi. Fredrick further states that, “This story of
hesed was of utmost significance, for its outcome, its denouement, was
the preservation of the family line that led from Perez through Boaz
and Obed to David.”6
Most form critics call
Ruth a novella. The book fits in to the category of short story,
connoting a brief fictional narrative of conscious craftship. The plot
moves through various scenes to climax and resolution. According to
Nielsen, “Ruth belongs to the narrative genre … It is characteristic of
both Gunkel and Zenger to regard the short story as being the
narrative, but to exclude the final Davidic genealogy, which they take
to be a later addition and therefore of no regard here.”7
in the Old Testament that Ruth most closely resembles are the
patriarchal narratives. In a combination of narrative and genealogy
Ruth presents both the particular events that took place when God
elected a Moabite woman and the line of descent of which she herself
was part and to which she gave life.
D. Position of Ruth in the Canon; Originally the story of Ruth was an
independent narrative retold on various occasions. Unlike other
biblical books (e.g.’ Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Esther), the book of
Ruth stirred up no disagreement in antiquity over its canonicity.
Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. states that, “In the first century A.D., both
Jewish and Christian writers drew upon it without hesitation as a
record of sacred history (cf. Josephus, Ant. V.9: 1-4; Matt. 1:5; Luke
3:32). The earliest Jewish and Christian lists of Scriptures
unanimously included Ruth, though not always in the same canonical
Complete manuscripts, patristic discussions, and later lists attest the
universal acceptance of the book as a canon. Fredrick W. Bush, states
that, “ Although the Canonicity of Ruth has been virtually accepted
without questions, its position in the canon had a considerable
controversy.”9 In the printed edition of the Hebrew Bible, Ruth is
found between Judges and I Samuel. This is also its position in the
German, French, Arabic, Syriac Bibles, Oromo, Amharic, and Vulgate, all
of which follow the order of Septuagint.
e. Historical-Critical view;
Ruth is a good
literature, it is entertaining and instructive. Thus a number of
Scholars reject every attempt to find a hidden agenda in Ruth. Modern
historical critics respond to that saying, a text that culminates in
the birth of king David must have had a political purpose when it came
into being. Kirsten Nielsen states that, “The portrayal of Ruth’s path
to marriage with Boaz is formed as an election story, which like the
patriarchal narratives aims to persuade the reader that behind the
election of Davidic dynasty lies God himself.”10
Critics portray the
genealogy in Ruth as an example of a linear genealogy of the type that
is often used to legitimize a king’s claim to the throne. A number of
scholars regard the Moabite origin of David’s family as a historical
fact. Nielsen Kirsten states his position saying, “The story of Ruth
has not been supplemented with a genealogy, as many scholars believe.
The genealogy is in fact its basic premise and starting point.
Admittedly the genealogy is a problem but within the very problem lays
the solution. It simply requires the book of Ruth to be read
intertextually, i.e. in the light of –among others- the Tamar
f. Theological Themes;
The book of Ruth portrays in the dramatic and concrete form of the
words and deeds of its protagonists in the sphere of interpersonal and
family obligation that constitutes hesed, while focusing sharply on the
element of the imitable, ‘go thou and do likewise.’ The narrator’s
portrayal of God and God’s action place the book far to one side of the
Old Testament artistic perspective. The discourse stress is
overwhelmingly on the implicitness of God’s providence. As in the book
of Esther, so in Ruth, it takes divine and human causality to transform
Naomi’s life from death and emptiness to life and fullness. According
to Hubbard, “ The book presupposes that God acts in the acts of human
characters. This assumption is evident in the book’s larger theological
II. WORD STUDY
1. Mother’s house, (bet immah);
This term occurs only
four times in the Scripture. Once here in Ruth 1:8, once in Gen 24: 8
(The Rebekah story), and twice in the Song of Songs (3:4; 8:2). In each
case the context is related to marriage arrangements. The term also
reflects the central role of the mother in every day life.
2. Kindness, (hesed); The term ‘kindness’ in v.8 is a
feeble attempt to translate the Hebrew word hesed. In the Hebrew Bible,
hesed has far more theological significance than ‘kindness’. Hesed is
considered as an essential part of the nature of God and is frequently
used to describe God’s acts of unmerited grace and mercy. To do or show
hesed means to demonstrate loving kindness and loyalty that extends far
beyond what the law requires, beyond anything the recipient expects or
deserves to receive.
3. Turn/ Return, ‘Sub’; The narrator uses the same root
word for ‘turn’/ ‘return’ ‘sub’ in all of the turning points in this
scene. ‘Turn’/ ‘Return’ occurs both in the narration and in the
dialogue, serving to integrate both components of the text, and it
carries the whole movement and tension of the episode.
4. Mother-in-law, ‘Hamot’, The narrator uses this term,
meaning ‘husband’s mother’ here and in 2:11, 18, 19, 23; 3:1, 6, 16.
But Ruth herself never uses this term to address Naomi. Ruth uses the
term only when she tells Naomi that Boaz has said “Do not return to
your mother-in-law empty handed.”
III. EXEGETICAL COMMENT
Ruth 1:6-14 differs from that of the introductory pericope in two
striking and important ways. First, the narrator does not move events
forward in great leaps by using broad, general statements as he did in
the first section. Second he does not primarily relate to us what the
protagonists of his story are thinking or feeling or what their
intentions were by making narrative statements about them. Rather the
writer communicates with us by letting them speak, that is the favorite
literary device used. More than half of the book is a dialogue (exactly
55 verses out of 85). According to Bush W. Fredrick, “The task of the
interpreter of the book of Ruth is more difficult, for the feelings
intentions, and actions of the characters of the story are portrayed
indirectly and subtly.”13
1:6-7. Clearly Naomi is the focus of the narrative. The phrase back to
the land of Judah in v. 7 refers to Naomi alone, since Ruth and Orpah
had not come from there originally. The word translated ‘food’ is
(lehem), which can mean either ‘bread’ or ‘food’. Naomi decided to
return home, because she had heard that “bread” (lehem) had returned to
the house of bread (bet-lehem).
The word that is translated “daughter-in-law (Kalla) is used in many
passages to mean “bride”. The narrator may use this particular term to
add a further touch of pathos to the story and to make the two women
seem younger and more eligible for second marriages.
1:8-9. Sharon and Carol, editors of the ‘Women’s Bible
Commentary’ state that, “Most scholars are surprised by the phrase
‘mother’s house’ rather than the traditional ‘father’s house’… The
expression reflects the central role of the mother in every day life.
As the story moves on, we also begin to realize that the most important
areas of the action are linked to women and their world.”14 Naomi’s
statement on v.9 makes it clear that urging each of them to go back to
her “mother’s house” is equivalent to encouraging them to look for new
husbands. Going back to the mother’s house is a first step in the
process that will allow them to find ‘rest’ or ‘security’ (menuha’) in
another husbands house.
1:10-13. When the younger women say they would return with Naomi
to her home than return to their own homes (v.10), Naomi comes up with
a series of arguments meant to persuade them to go back to their
mothers house, (bet immah). According to Raymond Westbrook, “Naomi’s
logic seems to be based on a customary practice known in modern times
as the “levirate marriage” after the Latin word levir, meaning
“brother-in-law. If an Israelite man died before he produced any
offspring, his brother was expected to marry the widow and to allow the
firstborn son of their union to carry on the dead man’s name. Similar
practices were customary in Hittite, Assyrian, and Ugaritic societies,
and texts.”15 Naomi thinks there is not even the remotest possibility
that levirate customs could provide a satisfactory solution to their
mutual dilemma. Later in the story, Naomi’s next of kin will be called
a “redeemer,” but never a “brother-in-law.”
argument has to do with her own apparently hopeless situation. The
future may seem uncertain for Orpah and Ruth, but Naomi thinks her own
situation is even worse than theirs. They might still remarry and have
children, but the older woman seems to have “no hope’ (v. 12). In v. 9,
Naomi expressed the wish that the Lord would deal even more kindly with
Orpah and Ruth than they deserved. But v. 13 indicates that Naomi does
not think the Lord has dealt kindly with her at all. Naomi is bitter
(mar) and she blames the Lord for bringing about the situation in which
she finds herself.
1:14. Orpah’s leave-taking is recorded in the briefest possible
manner. Having been persuaded by Naomi’s argument in vv. 11-13, Orpah
kisses Naomi good-bye and then simply vanishes from the narrator’s
point of view. According to the new interpreters Bible, Unlike Orpah,
Ruth is not persuaded. She “clings” to her mother-in-law, note the verb
‘cling’ (dabaq), which can also be used to refer to a marriage
relationship, as in Gen 2:24; 1 Kgs. 11:2, Or to Israel’s ideal
relationship with God, as in Josh 22:5. Unlike Orpah, who is never
given a speaking voice in the story, Ruth makes a lengthy, forceful,
and passionate speech that dismisses all of Naomi’s argument as
IV. HERMENEUTICAL REFLECTION
The text deals with the switches from the infertility of Moab to the
fertility of Judah, where Yahweh again has provided the essential
conditions for life. The outward cause is not man-made but controlled
by the God of Israel. Together with her daughters-in-law Naomi now
leaves the land that has provided her with daily bread over the years
but has also claimed the lives of her husband and sons. She wishes to
return to Judah (note that the key concept sub, return home, is used no
less than twelve times in this chapter).
The fact that help is on the way is clear from the statement that the
God of Israel looks after his people. The verb ‘to look after’ is
employed in similar fashion for the sending of rain to the land in Ps.
65:10, but it is also used in Gen. 21:1 and 1 Sam. 2:21, where God
helps infertile women to conceive (Sarah and Hannah). Could also be
part of Yahweh’s purpose for the Moabite women? Bethlehem has again
become the ‘house of bread,’ to which Naomi therefore wishes to return,
but will God also look after her daughters-in-law, who are not of his
people? The answer seems to have been found when Naomi urges the two
women to return to Moab; the future in Judah is for Naomi alone, not
for the Moabite women. According to Nielsen Kirsten, “ Naomi wants the
God of Israel to take care of the two women, but immediately that is
defined as married security. The word security, menuhah, alludes to a
home where one can live in peace with the day-to-day essentials taken
care of. It is no longer a question of their mother’s house but of
‘each husband’s house’; that is, where the adult woman is blessed,
according to the text. But Ruth and Orpah refuse: they would rather
follow Naomi back to her own people.”16
Naomi’s concern about their waiting so long for husbands is
automatically linked to one of the motifs in the Tamar story and must
be read in this intertextuality. For an understanding of the action so
far it is important to underline at this juncture Naomi rejects the
possibility of a levirate marriage for Ruth and Orpah. Every reasonable
consideration favors their future being back home in Moab. The author
briefly dismisses Orpah, whose name is not even mentioned. It is also
characteristic that the author passes no judgment on Orpah, leaving
this to the reader. Sooner or later a reader is bound to react
negatively or positively. Ruth does the opposite. She clings to Naomi
and refuses to leave her. According to Nielsen, “In Hebrew the dbq is
used, which is known from Gen. 2:24, …Seen in this light Ruth’s gesture
is just as crucial for the future as a man who marries.”17 When the
returning decision is finally made, Ruth stresses her ties to the
people and the religion.
V. Homiletical Insights
Communication media may neglect the mundane details of everyday
relationships, but these are the facts of life that affect the majority
of people in the most significant ways. Naomi’s reference to the
‘mother’s house’ gives us an oblique glimpse into one of the most
unreported roles played by Israelite women in daily affairs. The
narrator reports that Ishmael’s mother ‘got a wife for him’ does not
seem to think this was exceptional behavior on Hagar’s part, and Naomi
does not see marriage from ‘the mother’s house’ as a foreign
institution. Carol Meyer clearly states that, “ Israelite women
apparently had a role equal to if not greater than their husbands in
arranging the marriages of their children”17
Orpah’s journey home helps us to reconsider the silent and the silenced
among us, the women who stand both on the threshold of the women’s
movement and on the threshold of traditional beliefs and practices. It
is very important for the interpreter of Ruth to note that the
relationship between Ruth and Naomi is described by the narrator, not
prescribed as a rule for anyone else’s behavior. If Ruth’s account is
taken to be prescriptive, then the book of Ruth becomes an oppressive
instrument. The relationship between the mother-in-law and
daughter-in-law translates differently in different cultural settings
and among different persons. There is nothing in the biblical text of
Ruth to justify our using it to impose or to reinforce standards of
behavior in our own times.
Bush, W. Fredrick.
Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas, Texas: Wordbooks publisher, 1982.
Returning Home: Ruth 1:8 and the Gendering of the book of Ruth, in a Feminist Companion to Ruth, ed. Athalya Brenner.
Sheffield Academic, 1993.
Caspi, M. Michael.
The Book of Ruth, An annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc. 1994.
Fuerst, J. Wesley.
The Books of Ruth, Esther, Ecclesiastes, The
Song of Songs, Lamentations, The Five Scrolls. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1975.
Hubbard, L. Robert.,Jr.
The Book of Ruth. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988.
Knight, A.F. George.
Ruth and Jonah, Introduction and Commentary. London: SCM Press, 1960.
Ruth, A Commentary. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997.
Ringe, H. Sharon and Newson A. Carol, Eds.
Women’s Bible Commentary, Expanded Edition, With Apocrypha. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998.
David, Noel Freedman, chief Ed.
The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 5, O-Sh. Doubleday, 1992.
John, H. Hays, Gen. Ed.
Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation K-Z. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999.
The New Interpreter’s Bible, A commentary in Twelve Volumes, Abingdon Press, 1998.